Save the Paradox!

An impossible creature like the platypus cannot but fascinate.

  • It has the beak of a duck; the tail of a beaver; the feet of an otter.
  • It is a mammal but it lays eggs.
  • It is bio-luminescent–a rare charecteristic for a mammal.
  • It is a rare venomous mammal–the males of the species have a spur on the hind feet which can deliver venom.

No wonder early scientists thought it was a hoax—that the preserved specimen they were shown had been made up by sewing together parts of various animals.

It was certainly an animal which changed world views.

It shook up the scientific world. Robert Persig, the American author and philosopher thought this pointed to the inadequacy of scientific thinking, when he said, “…when the Platypus was discovered, scientists said it was a paradox. But Pirsig’s point was it was never a paradox or an oddity. It didn’t make sense only to the scientists because they viewed the nature of animals according to their own classification, when nature did not have any.” ― Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals.

It also shook up the world of religion, with anti-evolutionary theory proponents using it to cast doubt on Darwin and his theories.

The animal is found in Australia and Australia alone. Till recently, the overall conservation status of the platypus was not a matter of very deep concern. But recent reports are throwing up some red flags. Platypus habitat is reported to have shrunk by almost 25% in the last three decades. In the last decade or two, they have not been sighted in some of the areas which they traditionally inhabited. The reasons are not difficult to find—urban sprawl encroaching upon creeks and waterways which are platypus habitats; land clearing; disruption of the natural flow of rivers; building of dams and weirs; erosion of river banks; and unstable climate and increased droughts due to climate change.

Fortunately, conservation scientists don’t think the situation is beyond repair, but feel it is time to sit up and take steps. And let us hope they do! The world cannot lose this creature, for then, where would be our sense of wonder? Where the hope of a world which still holds secrets waiting to be discovered? Of the sense that ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy’?

The platypus has inspired its share of lore, legend, stories and poetry. My visit to an aquarium in Australia was the only time I ever saw a platypus. And a story from Native Australian lore re-told there inspired me to write ‘Who Will Rule’, a children’s book brought out by Tulika and translated into many languages.

And to end, a classic platypus poem:

THE PLATYPUS

by: Oliver Herford (1863-1935)

A sad example sets for us: From him we learn how Indecision

Of character provokes Derision.

This vacillating Thing, you see,

Could not decide which he would be,

Fish, Flesh or Fowl, and chose all three.

The scientists were sorely vexed

To classify him; so perplexed

Their brains, that they, with Rage at bay,

Called him a horrid name one day,–

A name that baffles, frights and shocks us,

Ornithorhynchus Paradoxus.

–Meena

Beach Lore

The good news that newspapers brought us yesterday was that eight Indian beaches had qualified for the Blue Flag tag—an achievement indeed! This Certification is awarded by Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE), an NGO, and is a respected one, with stringent requirements. There are 33 criteria spanning environmental, educational, access and safety related parameters. Beaches tagged as Blue Flag provide clean and hygienic bathing water, along with basic infrastructure for tourists.

It is not impossible to spruce up for an inspection and get a certification or award. The challenge is make the improvement sustainable, and an inclusive shared vision with all stakeholders. Let us hope these eight beaches are able to do this and stay on the list, even as more join them in the years to come.

At any rate, it provides an opportunity to revise some beachy information:

A beach is a narrow, gently sloping strip of land that lies along the edge of an ocean, lake, or river (yes, technically, even the land around a lake or along a river is a beach!).

Beaches are made of materials such as sand, pebbles, rocks, and seashell fragments. Over the decades and centuries, forces of nature—water, wind, erosion, weathering—act on the cliffs, rocks and landforms at the edge of the waters, and break them down.  As tides come in, they deposit sediment which may have sand, shells, seaweed, and even marine organisms like crabs or sea anemones. When they go out, they take some sediment back with them.

Beaches are constantly changing. Tides and weather can alter beaches every day, bringing new materials and taking away others. There are seasonal variations too. In the winter, storm winds throw sand into the air. This can sometimes erode beaches and create sandbars. In the summer, waves retrieve sand from sandbars and build the beach back up again. These seasonal changes cause beaches to be wider and have a gentle slope in the summer, and be narrower and steeper in the winter.

At 7500 kms, India has the world’s seventh-longest coastline, with nine states and two union territories having coasts.

Apart from aesthetics, beaches are habitats for many, many species. The Olive Ridley coming to nest in the Gahirmatha beach of Orissa is a phenomenon that naturalists come from around the world to witness. In all, about 2,50,000 to 3,00,000 turtles nest here every year, in the space of about two weeks. Thousands of female turtles arrive each night to lay eggs. They make nest holes, lay 100-300 eggs, smooth the nests over, sometimes covering them with vegetation, and go back. Fifty days later, the eggs hatch, and millions of little turtles, each the size of a brooch, make their way into the ocean to start their lives.  

Our coasts and beaches are also witness to a hoary past: The rockcut temples of Elephanta date back to the 6th century AD. The temples of Mahabalipuram are almost as old—going back to the 7th century. The Konarak temple dates back to the 13th century, at which point it stood directly on the sea, though today the sea has moved about 3 km away. Dwarka is believed to have been the Krishna’s capital, and is said to stand on the site of five earlier cities. Fort Aguada, Goa, built in the 17th century has a unique lighthouse. Rameshwaram has the largest temple in India.

And of course, on April 5, 1930, Gandhiji and 78 satyagrahis reached the beach at Dandi on the coast of Gujarat to make salt and history.

So let’s protect our beaches! Let’s Blue Flag them all!

–Meena

The Sparrow and The Peacock

Whesparrown I was growing up in Delhi, house sparrows were very much a part of our lives. They were everywhere, and by the dozens. In fact, most children of those times got their first nature lessons by watching sparrows—the sex differentiation, how they built their nests, the eggs hatching and the parents feeding the young, their mud-bathing etc.

Everyone loved them, but that is not to say they did not give us some headaches. In the summers, they would fly into the house, and it was a mad scramble to switch off the fans and shoo the birds out before they were hit by it and died. And mothers would keep long sticks handy to chase them when they showed signs of making nests in the fan-cups.

For many years now, sparrows are not to be seen so easily. Now, the recently published ‘State of India’s Birds’ assures me that I need not worry because the population of sparrows has been stable in India for the last 25 years. I believe it, because the report is the result of a collaboration among ten of the most respected research and conservation organisations in the country. But I do know that the population has significantly declined from say 35 years ago. And I do wish I would see more of chirpy little birds.

The report also says that the population of peafowl has increased manifold. This may be attributed, it is being said, to the spread of aridity in the country. This is not all good news, as peacocks come into cultivation and eat up growing shoots, causing harm to crops.

The report identifies 101 bird species as needing special efforts for conservation, including specially raptors and water-birds.

The report is a landmark in Indian conservation efforts, because it provides good quality baseline data, which can help shape conservation efforts and their monitoring. It is also unique in that it is based on data collected by citizens across the country–10 million observations collected by over 15,500 birdwatchers across the country. Truly participatory and truly large scale. And the fact that hard-core research organizations are guiding the effort, gives authenticity to the data and findings.

Knowing is the first step to acting. Now we know to some extent what we should worry about. Time to act now!

–Meena

Tribute to India’s Birdman: Dr. Salim Ali

330px-Salim_ali_mnsSalim Ali’s birthday falls on 12 Nov. He was born in 1896 and passed away in 1987. He may be credited with single-handedly bringing ornithology to India. And this interest in ornithology, as it spread, led to interest in wildlife and biodiversity; in environmental issues; in conservation; and in sustainable development.

He inspired generations in India and created a culture of systematic and scientific study of wildlife. If his ‘Book of Indian Birds’ is the easy guide which every bird watcher starts with, the landmark ten volume Handbook of the Birds of India and Pakistan which he wrote with Dillon Ripley is the authoritative guide. Dr. Salim Ali was respected across the world, and decorated with the Padma Bhushan and Padma Vibhushan.

On this his birth anniversary, here are excerpts from an interview of Dr. Salim Ali (when he was 85+ years of age!), with Dr. HSA Yahya of Aligarh Muslim University, and taken from http://wgbis.ces.iisc.ernet.in/ envis/doc97html/biosalim24.html. My only contribution is to have picked out two sections that I found of particular interest.

MONEY MATTERS NOT A JOT

‘Then I told Prater ” look we have so many places in India and we know nothing about birds.”  Hyderabad for instance, was a complete blank on the ornithological map. So I said ” if you write to the British Residents who are really interested in these kinds of things we can probably get some financial support. I do not want any pay. I only want my expenses paid and I will be quite happy to go, study and collect birds.”So the Society got in touch with the Hyderabad Government which had largely British heads of Departments. They were very glad. But it is really quite laughable, the amount we asked for and which we got and in which I was able to complete the survey. I think for the whole of the Hyderabad State survey for six months we got about 6000 Rupees (NOTE: THIS WAS WAY BEFORE INDEPENDENCE!).  Yes, six thousand which included the food of the skinner, our own food, cost of travelling and everything (laughter)! We were able to do it with a lot of trouble, many of our camp shifts had to be done by bullock carts because there were no roads in the places where we were camping. After Hyderabad I did Kerala which was then two states, Cochin and Travancore. Then one after the other Central India, Gwalior, Indore, Bhopal. So all these were done under the same system: asking for small amounts and doing it. I could do it because I had the time, I mean, I was just doing it and nothing else and I did not have any ambition to try again for some bigger job somewhere and so on. Not because bigger jobs were not there and perhaps I would have not got them, but they were not in the line in which I was interested.’

ON THE IMPORTANCE OF A LIKE-MINDED PARTNER IN FOLLOWING A PASSION

‘I tried all kinds of jobs for a long time. Finally, I said that, well, I have all these trainings and I have my chief interest in birds so why should I not do this on my own. My wife had a little money and I had a little investment and so on. Then we worked out and found that we had just enough if we left Bombay, which was very expensive and went to live in some quieter place which would give more facilities for bird study, we will be far happier. My great fortune was that my wife who had had all her education in England and been used to quite a different sort of life to what she would have in the kind of work I wished to do. She insisted that I should take up only the work that I was interested to do. She said ” now we have enough to live quietly, we would go to some small place, I will be quite happy.” She was keen on poetry and Urdu and various kinds of reading and so on. Then she got very interested in birds too, and in outdoor life and in things she had never had any experience in England of.’

From: TRANSCRIPT OF AN INTERVIEW WITH SALIM ALI by Dr H S A Yahya Reader, Centre for wildlife & ornithology, Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh.

–Meena

PS: ‘The Fall of a Sparrow’ his autobiography,  is a must-read.

The Dodo and The Myna

The Dodo is the textbook example of man’s role in driving other species to extinction. This defenceless bird was hunted and harried to disappearance through the appearance of humans on the uninhabited island of what is now called Mauritius. Sailors on the high seas—the Arabs, the Portuguese and then the Dutch, discovered and re-discovered the pristine isle. For dodos, the beginning of the end was in 1598 when the Dutch discovered them on the island. Dodos were flightless birds, and also fearless because they had never encountered predators. So when humans appeared with their guns and weapons, they had no clue how to protect themselves. Moreover, humans brought along dogs, cats, pigs, rats—all which hunted the birds and raided their nests. Till there were none left.

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But if this is a story of man’s role in the loss of a species, what follows is an equally sorry tale of havoc cause by man’s deliberate introduction of a species into an alien eco-system. And on the very same island of Mauritius!

Sugarcane did and continues to play a key role in the economy of Mauritius. The sugarcane crop in Mauritius was beset by grasshoppers, which ate the leaves. In the 1780s, the French deliberately introduced mynas to the island to help control these. To a certain extent they did, but soon enough the mynas figured out the local lizards were easier to catch than the grasshoppers, and so made the lizards the mainstay of their diet. One consequence of this was that the insects that the lizards fed on multiplied, as they now had no predators! And even more seriously perhaps, the mynas themselves became pests to native species. Mynas are by nature aggressive and raid nests for eggs and newly hatched chicks. They compete with native birds for nesting sites. In Mauritius, they have been known to compete with an endemic species, the endangered Echo Parakeet, for nesting spaces.

Island ecosystems are very special. Human interventions can have disastrous results. To quote the IUCN Island Ecosystem Specialist Group:

‘Earth is home to over 100,000 islands, which support 20% of global biodiversity. The characteristics of size, shape and degree of isolation make many of these islands ecologically and culturally unique.

However, these same characteristics also make islands fragile and vulnerable ecosystems. Islands have the highest proportion of recorded species extinctions. Eighty percent of known species extinctions have occurred on islands and currently 45 percent of IUCN Red List endangered species occur on islands.’

Mauritius and all islands are beautiful and special! Let’s hope that we humans can preserve what makes them special, and leave the generations to follow this precious legacy.

An interesting aside:  A Mughal-time painting found in St. Petersburg  shows a dodo along with several Indian birds. The painting is believed to be from the 17th century and is attributed to the artist Ustad Mansur. The bird depicted probably lived in Emperor Jahangir’s zoo in Surat!

–Meena

Magnificence—Endangered

Not just endangered, critically endangered. We are talking of the Great Indian Bustard (GIB). There are only about 200 birds left in the wild in India, mainly in Rajasthan and Gujarat. There are a few birds still in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. But they have completely disappeared from Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and Tamil Nadu.

GIB has been listed as Critically Endangered in 2011 on the IUCN Red List, which means that it faces an extremely high risk of extinction in the wild. When we say that a species is extinct it means that there is not be a single living member left of that species.

The Great Indian Bustard is a magnificent bird, standing about 1 metre tall. Its wingspan is more than 2 metres. It is mostly brown, with a light-coloured head and neck. The distinguishing feature is the black crown on the head. Interestingly although they look closer to ostriches or cranes, most recent research shows that the Bustard family is more closely related to the cuckoo family!

At about 15 kg, it is the heaviest flier in India, but not in the world. The world record is held by a relative, if we may call it that, the Kori Bustard which is found in Africa. The Kori often weighs upwards of 18 kg.

These birds live in wide open landscapes which have sparse grasses and shrubs. They spend most of their time on the ground. Their long legs and front-facing toes help them to run fast. Although they are usually seen striding or running, they also have strong wings and can fly well.

Their diet varies depending on what is available during a particular season. These birds feed on grass seeds, agricultural crops such as groundnuts, millets and legumes, as well as insects like grasshoppers and beetles, and rodents and lizards

They usually breed in the monsoon season which is when food is most easily available. The female scrapes the soil in a secluded place to lay her egg. Generally, she lays only one egg. She incubates the egg for 25 days before the chick is hatched. The exposed egg is always in danger from predators. The mother has to be alert to keep the egg and the new chick safe. The male does not play any part in making the nest, incubation or raising of the chick. It is the Mother GIB who does this alone!

What are the threats? Plenty! GIB can be found in some parts Pakistan also, and there, it is still hunted. There is also some amount of poaching occurring in India. Apart from that, the natural home of these birds is reducing in size. A major cause for this is expansion of agricultural fields and increase in mechanized farming in the areas where the GIB live. This also means that human settlements get closer. Then there other very mundane reasons. Dogs are a major threat to GIBs. As I told you, GIBs lay their eggs on the ground. With the villages so close, dogs often eat the eggs. Also, there has been a huge increase in high tension electric wires in the habitat area. GIBs often dash against these and get electrocuted. They may also get hit by fast-moving vehicles.

Only urgent mission-mode action can save the GIB. Can we let this magnificent bird got the way of the Dodo?

–Meena and Mamata

FrogFest

Over 35 years ago, when I spent two years living in Nairobi, my sister Seema, then a young zoology student came to visit. Among the souvenirs she picked up from the local market was a potholder made of cane that was shaped like a frog. After that trip, wherever she went, it was almost as if frogs were jumping out from everywhere, urging to be picked up! Frogs in all materials, shapes, sizes and poses. And so, Seema became a ‘frog collector’! It also made it easy for friends and family to find her a gift. Over the years, the frog artefact collection grew and grew till her house was bursting at the seams with frogs big and small. One day the thought came, how could this be shared with more people, and what would be the purpose of the sharing? Over a couple of years, and a combination of fortuitous circumstances, this idea metamorphosed into FrogFest.

FrogFest began as a brainchild of Seema’s old school friend Aditya Arya whose creative mind has always leapt way ahead of the average plodders and hoppers. Let’s do an exhibition called FrogArt, he said. With his vast experience in photography and exhibit design, he offered to curate the show. That done, it worked out that WWF offered to host the display. This was indeed serendipity! WWF was where Seema began her professional life as a volunteer (while still a college student). What better way to “give back” to an institution that was the first to nurture what became a lifelong passion (as well as vocation) for biodiversity and conservation!

Then came the challenge—how to use the frog artefacts to highlight the larger issues of amphibian conservation; how to creatively bridge the traditional gap between Art and Science? Seema invited me to join the team as co-curator, to apply my experience as an environmental educator. After six months of being steeped in all matters Batrachian (along the way we discovered that the study of frogs was known as Batrachology!) we were ready to launch FrogFest—Celebrating Frogs in Art and Nature.

As the name suggests, FrogFest focuses on the amazingly diverse interpretations of a single element of nature–the frog! It showcases Seema Bhatt’s personal collection of frog artefacts from over 40 countries, including a rendering of frogs in folk art, as well as contemporary art by young artists.

The display of the artefacts and art is supported by a series of panels that highlight the fascinating aspects of frogs, and the conservation significance of frogs in nature. Far from the dusty tomes of academic journals, the visual-rich and reader-friendly panels also offer a peep into the fascinating world of frogs in India and the important initiatives to conserve them.These have been supported and enriched with expert inputs from Dr S.D. Biju and Dr Gururaja, India’s foremost amphibian scientists.

 

The bridge between art and nature is further strengthened by the organisation and display of artefacts. For example, where the panel describes the role of colour in frogs in Nature, there is also a display of nearly a hundred frog artefacts, made from glass, ceramic, clay, stone and more, with vibrant colours, along with a ‘Frogtoid’ that reminds that while artists have let their imagination run riot, nature has bestowed frogs with a colour palette on which their very survival depends (attracting mates, warning predators).

 

With its brilliant interweaving of the facts and fun FrogFest offers a feast for the senses. It also provides food for thought by putting the spotlight on the Frog. At a time when the focus of wildlife conservation is primarily on charismatic ‘megafauna’, there is a dire need to reflect on the conservation of smaller, but equally significant fauna around us. While frogs may not always hit the headlines as the ‘Superstars’ of the grand epic of nature, they are no less fascinating, and indeed, no less important in the Web of Life.

FrogFest is on at WWF India, 172-B Lodi Road, New Delhi till the end of April 2018.

–Mamata